We live in a gorgeous, vibrant place, and it can be a pricey one, too. Adding kids into the equation can stretch money to the limit— and that’s before you even leave the house.
Don’t despair! You and your little ones can have loads of fun out and about and not spend a lot of money. You just have to know where to go. Here are some tips and ideas of where to go to enjoy an awesome summer for the whole family — on a dime!
First stop: libraries, community centers and parks
You probably already know libraries and community centers are free, but did you know that they have loads of free drop-in classes and activities for all ages? Your preschooler will have a blast at a free toddler playtime, tossing balls, riding trikes and scampering over slides while you chat up other grown-ups one interrupted sentence at a time. With outdoor playgrounds located directly next to most area community centers, consider packing lunch and making a (free!) day of it.
Many parks also hold awesome free events. Here are a few upcoming ones to get you started:
In Seattle, kids can play games, do crafts and bounce on bouncy houses during three Saturday Cascade Kid Days held this summer from noon to 3 p.m in South Lake Union, and play games and sports, enjoy crafts and demonstrations and so much more at the Big Day of Play from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 17 at Rainier Playfield in South Seattle. Here are a few more free Seattle events and activities.
North and South of the city, bring your family to a free movie under the stars this summer — some even include free popcorn — at an area park, including parks in Bellevue, Renton, and Snohomish County.
From Spanish and Mandarin story times to drop-in game nights, chess clubs and pajama story times for the whole family, there’s definitely a library event for you. Some awesome library events worth a special shout-out:
In Seattle, Detective Cookie’s Chess Club runs from 3 to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays in Rainier Beach (for kiddos age 7 and up) and Somali Story Time from 6 to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays at the New Holly branch. Plus, Thursday story time takes place at Northeast Seattle’s Lake City Farmer’s Market from 4:30 to 5 p.m., followed by free art and science activities until 7 p.m.
South of Seattle, we recommend family story time at 10:30 on Wednesdays in Tukwila and Wednesday Fun Day — including games, crafts and STEAM activities — at the Moore branch of the Tacoma Public Library. Also, there’s STEAM Saturdays on Saturday afternoons at the Mottet branch in Tacoma.
North of Seattle, Sno-Isle Libraries have awesome family programming, including an upcoming visit to Hogwarts in Snohomish Library and a regular evening Family Storytime at the Mill Creek Library. For something a little different, kiddos can read to a dog, including these events in Mukilteo, Monroe and Arlington.
Don’t forget about summer reading programs organized by local libraries! In addition to the fun of reading all summer long, children can attend special activities and get prizes.
Next up: We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo — or the museum, museum, museum… FREE!
Want to spend the day at the zoo or the museum? Want to go for FREE? All you need is a library card. Reserve and print passes using your library card number and pin (at home or on a free library computer).
King County: New passes are released at 9 p.m. through Seattle Public Libraries (SPL) and at 2 p.m. through the King County Library System (KCLS) for the next day (up to two weeks out for KCLS, and a month out for SPL) for the following places: Bellevue Arts Museum (KCLS only), Burke Museum (SPL only), Center for Wooden Boats (SPL only), Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum in Everett (SPL only), Henry Art Gallery (SPL only), Living Computer Museum and Labs (SPL only), KidsQuest Children’s Museum (KCLS only), Log House Museum (SPL only), MoPOP Museum of Pop Culture, Museum of Flight, Museum of History and Industry (SPL only), Nordic Heritage Museum (SPL only), Northwest African American Museum, Seattle Art Museum (SPL only), Seattle Aquarium, Wing Luke Museum (SPL only), the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma (KCLS only) and the Woodland Park Zoo (SPL only). You can visit the same location once a month.
Pierce County: The Puyallup Public Library and the Pierce County Library System have free passes to the Tacoma Art Museum, Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, and the Museum of Glass in Tacoma (a short walk from Link light rail).
Free Museum Days
Many area museums have their own free or reduced admission days, no pass required. Some are even always free— yes, really! Days and hours are subject to change, so be sure to double check before heading over. Here are some favorites, broken down by region:
- Burke Museum (U District): When it re-opens in October, the new Burke will be free every first Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
- Center for Wooden Boats (South Lake Union): Always free, with kid-friendly free events like a Thursday story time on board a tugboat, outdoor movies and free public sailings on Sundays. (Closed Mondays.)
- Frye Art Museum (First Hill): Always free from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., (and until 7 p.m. on Thursdays) including free tours and free storytelling and art first Fridays at 10:30 for kids ages 3 to 5. (Closed Mondays.)
- Henry Art Museum (UW campus): Always free for children, and free for all on Sundays and first Thursdays. (Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.)
- Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (Pioneer Square): Always free from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and kids can earn their Junior Ranger badge and participate in other free ranger-led activities like gold-panning demos held daily at 3:30 p.m.
- Museum of Flight: Free first Thursday nights from 5 to 9 p.m.
- Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI): Always free for kids 14 and under, and free for all first Thursdays from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. Thursdays)
- Nordic Museum (Ballard): Always free for kids 5 and under, and free for all first Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., including first Thursday Nordic storytelling and craft at 10 a.m.
- Northwest African American Museum (Central District): Free first Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Olympic Sculpture Park (Downtown): Always free.
- Seattle Art Museum (Downtown): Always free for kids 12 and under, free for all first Thursdays and free for seniors first Fridays. (Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays until 9. Closed Mondays.)
- Seattle Asian Art Museum (Capitol Hill): When it reopens this fall, always free for children 12 and under and free for families first Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (International District): Free first Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
South of Seattle:
- Children’s Museum of Tacoma: With the museum’s “Pay-as-you-will admission” you can go for free or make a donation in line with your budget. (Mondays are for members only and Tuesdays are for special-needs play only.)
- Hands On Children’s Museum of Olympia: Free first Friday nights from 5 to 9 p.m.
- Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor: Always free.
- Job Carr Cabin Museum in Tacoma: Always free. Wednesdays through Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m.
- Museum of Glass in Tacoma: Free Thursday evenings from 5 to 8 p.m. Take the Sounder to the Tacoma dome and connect with Tacoma’s free Link light rail to Union Station. You can also park at the Tacoma Dome for free and ride Link through Tacoma for free.
- Renton History Museum: Free first Wednesdays and third Saturdays.
- Tacoma Art Museum: Always free for kids 5 and under, free for kids 18 and under on Saturdays and free for all on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. Take the Sounder to the Tacoma dome and connect with Tacoma’s free Link light rail to Union Station. You can also park at the Tacoma Dome for free and ride Link through Tacoma for free.
- Washington State History Museum in Tacoma: Free third Thursdays from 3 to 8 p.m. Take the Sounder to the Tacoma dome and connect with Tacoma’s free Link light rail to Union Station. You can also park at the Tacoma Dome for free and ride Link through Tacoma for free.
- White River Valley Museum in Auburn: Free first Thursdays and third Sundays.
North/East of Seattle:
- Bellevue Arts Museum: Free first Fridays with extended hours from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and special events.
- Imagine Children’s Museum of Everett: Free third Friday nights from 5:30 to 9 p.m and reduced admission of $6 Thursday afternoon from 3 to 5 p.m.
- Kid’s Discovery Museum on Bainbridge Island: Free first Thursdays from 10 a.m to 4 pm. Walk onto the ferry to save money. The museum is just a short walk up the hill and down Winslow Way.
- U.S. Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport (between Bremerton and Poulsbo) is always free, with free parking, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Museum programs for families
Most area museums offer free or reduced admission or memberships for families who meet income requirements. Here are some of those:
Pacific Science Center: Reduced annual membership of $19/family for families who receive any form of public assistance.
Seattle Children’s Museum: Reduced admission of $2 per person and reduced memberships starting at $35 with an EBT or WA DSHS Services Provider One card.
Seattle Aquarium: Free admission to foster parents and relative caregivers as well as through several non-profit and government service providers, including through Seattle community centers.
Get out there!
There are so many amazing local parks, lakes and hiking trails and sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin. Consider joining Hike It Baby, a community of parents with groups all over the region that meet up at local parks and trailheads for kid-friendly walks, playdates and hikes. You can try it out for free, and annual memberships start at $10.
You don’t have to drive to your hikes either. With the Trailhead Direct program, transit shuttles to the Issaquah Alps leave regularly from the Mount Baker light rail station in Seattle, the Eastgate Transit Center in Bellevue and the Issaquah transit Center.
Want to visit a working farm for free? Kelsey Creek Farm in Bellevue and Mary Olson Farm in Auburn let you and your family step back in time and meet farm animals. Don’t forget to pack a lunch!
What about visiting a lighthouse? There are 13 lighthouses around the Puget Sound — including Alki Point in West Seattle, West Point in Seattle’s Discovery Park and Browns Point in Tacoma — and you can visit them for free.
Using transit makes your trip more fun and can help you get to an outing further afield than you might otherwise go. Here are a few ideas: Take the Sounder to Tacoma’s free downtown Link light rail and connect with local parks and museums (see above). Or, take the ferry to the Kid’s Discovery Museum on Bainbridge Island (see above). There’s also the monorail (free for kids 4 and under) from Westlake to the Seattle Center where loads of free fun can be had. On any given day, there could be a poetry reading, a festival and a free evening movie, as well as the ever-popular international fountain (bring a change of clothes), the Armory, and pathways and sculptures to explore.
Rainy — er, smoky — day fun
Here are some ideas to keep the fun free when you have to stay indoors.
Many area malls have awesome indoor play areas to help you pass the time, including Kid’s Cove at Bellevue Square, the Tot Lot at Alderwood Mall, and Westfield Southcenter’s PlaySpace. Kids also love exploring the REI Seattle flagship store, from checking out tents and bikes, to exploring the camping-themed play area on the top floor.
How about a free indoor movie? Tacoma’s Grand Cinema hosts a free, family-friendly morning movie on the third Saturday of the month.
Nothing says summer like a free gutter ball! Kids can bowl free all summer at several local bowling alleys including these alleys in Seattle: Roxbury Lanes and West Seattle Bowl.
North of Seattle: Spin Alley in Shoreline, Hi-Line Lanes in Burien, Lynnwood Bowl and Skate and Kenmore Lanes.
South of Seattle: Daffodil Bowl in Puyallup; Bowlero Lanes, Chalet Bowl, Paradise Lanes and Tower Lanes in Tacoma.
There’s no shortage of free fun to be had in the Seattle area. Bring your sense of adventure and leave your wallet at home. Your kids won’t miss a thing.
About the Author
Shawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter who occasionally catalogs her personal chaos at Critical Playdate. She is mama to Quinn, 10, Ruby, 8, and Nora, 4. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves writing, reading and avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile.
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